FORGET the debacle that was South Africa's entry to the Venice Biennale in 1993. When what is arguably the world's major art fair opens this weekend in that city of dreams and sordid waterways, South Africa, pristine in liberation, will be back.
Nearly three decades of sanctions and boycotts will have ended as Cape Town artist Malcolm Payne unveils the piece he has created/curated for the festival — whose theme is, appropriately enough, Identita et Ulterita (loosely translated as Identity and Difference).
The 1993 participation, though formally solicited, ended up as a salad of South African art under apartheid; though much of the art was of real quality, the exhibition as a whole lacked perspective and curatorial intent. In the rarefied context of the Venice Biennale, increasingly seen as a kind of concrete symposium on contemporary art, the effect was rather like cutting off one's head. Or maybe just putting a bag over it.
As Payne noted in proposing the piece which was finally selected to represent South Africa, the audience for the Biennale is "the rest of the world … the international art community … not us". Hence, it was necessary that a statement be made, a position adopted. Most particularly, it was necessary that South Africa position itself in relation to the Biennale as a global art institution.
Payne's piece responds to what were generally considered the major pieces on the 1993 Venice Biennale: Ilya Kabakov's emptying out of the Russian pavilion, and Hans Haacke's brutalisation (he dug up the floor) of the German pavilion. But, as opposed to such gestures of despoilment, Payne has chosen to mark the presence of South Africa via construction.
In allusion to the political past of South Africa, its isolation and the silence of oppression, Payne decided to brick up the exhibition venue provided by the municipality of Venice in the absence of a South African pavilion — with little boxes of memory let into the windows. At the same time he has built additional walls of remembrance in selected sites among the national pavilions — near those of the United States, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. Embedded in these walls are boxes, some remembering dead artists, others empty, others again containing works by contemporary South African artists.
These include Randolph Hartzenberg, who has constructed, in two separate inset boxes, a space filled with medicine vials and offset by two taps; and Brett Murray, who has taken a banal, painted townscape of Stellenbosch and peopled it with a touristy black tribal couple in one box, and performed a similarly pointed populating of landscape in the other.
The whole work becomes, at the same time, a site of memory, a clearing of the past, and a record of identity. Its key moment is a dialogue box which reads: 1997-. That is the point to be made about the present.
* It is appropriate that the only other piece by a South African at the 1995 Venice Biennale is Jane Alexander's The Butcher Boys.
Chosen by Biennale director Jean Clair, formerly director of the Picasso Museum in Paris, for inclusion in his showcase international exhibition, The Butcher Boys come out of, and serve as icons for, a particular period of South African history. They are about the muteness, brutalisation and horror of this country in the 1980s. In the context of Clair's exhibition — which takes the human figure as its subject, and whose avowed intention is to assert the continuing viability of traditional values in art — they make a similar point to that which underlies Malcolm Payne's piece.
Ivor Powell was a member of the selection panel for South Africa's participation at the Venice Biennale